There may not be a stranger paradox in sports than the one that football fans have with the Pro Bowl.
For a game that is universally seen as a joke and one that pales in comparison to the all-star games of other major sports, it still draws irrationally strong TV ratings. Last year, 12.5 million viewers tuned in to watch a Pro Bowl that lacks most of football's basic fundamentals (like contact or defense) or any kind of entertaining skills competition.
The fact that the NFL can pull ratings based on namesake, as opposed to competitiveness, shows to how much we truly love every aspect of the game.
But this also speaks volumes to the Pro Bowl's biggest problem—for as little as we claim to care about the Pro Bowl, we sure care a lot about the Pro Bowl.
The game means nothing, but the number of Pro Bowl appearances a player has earned is somehow a legitimate aspect of a Hall of Fame career? I'm not buying it. But conversely, we can't dismiss the Pro Bowl and then get up in arms when Richard Sherman doesn't get in (though to be fair, he should be starting at corner. Patrick Peterson? Really?).
Like any open voting process, research and informedness are key. But even with websites like Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus serving up more advanced stats than we can wrap our heads around, voting for the Pro Bowl and is still largely a popularity contest.
I know, the problem extends to other sports' all-star games as well (at last check, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming are the leading vote-getters for the NBA All-Star Game). But even as our excuses for making bad selections get thinner, our judgment doesn't seem to be getting better.
The only real option is to minimize fan voting. The NBA did it last season, giving selection duties for the All-Star reserves to the coaches, while keeping the fan vote for the starters. And while the league decides on Pro Bowl alternates, the players aren't considered "Pro Bowlers" even if they end up playing in the game.
Giving coaches or writers/analysts a share in the voting process would be a great start to making sure that players get in because they have big seasons and not because they're big names. Take away the names from guys like Jeff Saturday, Jared Allen, Julius Peppers, LaRon Landry or Eric Berry, and they aren't sniffing the Pro Bowl this season.
Something has to change about the Pro Bowl. We need to either totally dismiss it as a popularity contest and discredit anyone who uses it as a barometer of a player's skill or improve the voting process. If we're going to place value on making a Pro Bowl, we should do more to ensure that the most deserving players get in each season.
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